There were plenty of famous faces among the movers and shakers at Michael’s today. Vanessa Williams (stunning!) was lunching with Star Jones, multi-hyphenate talent Anna Deavere Smith and 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl chatted while they waited for their respective dates to arrive and Kathie Lee Gifford sipped chardonnay with Eva Mohr. I had a bird’s eye view of the action from Table One, where I was joined by some fabulous folks in their own right.
British Heritage Travel’s CEO Jack Kliger and his wife Amy Griggs Kliger who, along with BHT’s marketing director Janice Dehn, invited me to meet Dr. Mari Takayanagi, a senior archivist at the Parliamentary Archives in Britain and co-creator and project manager of Vote 100, an ambitious endeavor that launches next year to mark–and celebrate–100 years of the Parliamentary vote for some women and all men in 2018 (much more on this later).
Mari and co-creator Melanie Unwin, deputy curator of The Parliament Art Collection, conceived the idea for Vote 100, bearing in mind that 2018 also marks 90 years of equal franchise (when women finally got the vote on the same terms as men) and 60 years since women first sat in the House of Lords. Mari, who brought along her charming mother, Robby Durrant, is in town to attend the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, which kicks off at Hofstra University tomorrow and runs through Saturday.
Mari, who has at her fingertips a head-spinning amount of trivia about women’s suffrage in the U.K., will be the sole Brit on a panel with several American academics, who will discuss the topic from both an American and British perspective. She landed her current position after toiling at the London School of Economics Archives for three years and did her Ph.D (in seven years while working!) on parliament and women in the early 20th century, so she certainly knows what she’s talking about.
It struck me, with everything going on around the world today, that a history of women’s suffrage on both sides of the pond seems particularly timely. “People often don’t realize how recent these rights are,” said Mari, who also gave Michael’s Dover sole high marks. “There are many [women’s] causes we are still fighting for today.” When I asked Mari for her take on British lawmakers debating whether President Donald Trump would be allowed to speak in the hallowed halls of Parliament (and successfully dodged incurring his wrath now that the state visit has been schedule during it recess), she explained quite diplomatically that as a “public servant” she “can’t express political opinions.” Alrighty then.
Here’s a quick primer on the history of suffrage in Britain: Before 1918, no women and about 40% of men couldn’t vote. After World War I, those restrictions became unacceptable, said Mari, because they excluded large numbers of men who had served in the war as well as tradesmen who supported the war effort. The Representation of the People Act of 1918 gave the vote to virtually all men, and to some women over the age of 30–about 8.4 million.
One of the criteria for both sexes was that the individual had to be a homeowner. Later the same year, a separate Act allowed women to stand as MPs. Women voted and stood as candidates for the first time in the general election of December 1918, with Constance Markievicz becoming the first MP to be elected–but, as a member of Sinn Fein, she didn’t take her seat. American socialite Nancy Astor occupied it instead.
According to Mari, Mrs. Astor was one tough customer. “The House of Commons was a ‘bear pit’ and men that she had talked to and known socially refused to talk to her [in Parliament].” And in the More Things Change, The More They Remain The Same Department: “All the press was about what she was wearing.” Clever Nancy devised an ingenious solution: “She designed her own uniform–a white blouse and a long black skirt so she would be taken seriously.”
So, I asked when was it that all women were given the right to vote in Britain? The answer: 1928. It happened despite the vociferous objections of Winston Churchill (“He was against it to the bitter end”). Why was Churchill so opposed to all women voting? “He thought it would ruin the Conservative Party.” Just in case you forgot, all women got the right to vote here in 1920.
All this and much more will be part of the Vote 100 Exhibition Project, which will be open to the public in Westminster Hall from June through September of next year and will tell the story of Parliament, women and the vote from the 18th century to the present day. The installation will rely on archival materials es and works of art from the Parliamentary collections and immersive spaces to re-create some of the historic spaces in the Palace of Westminster used by women. And how about this? Mari told me in the 1800s, women had to go up to the attic and view the proceedings in Parliament behind a heavy metal grill covering a window which, I’m guessing, made things a wee bit difficult to see and hear. All so they wouldn’t “distract” the MPs. Really.